It is somewhat ironic that Anglicanorum coetibus, the provision made by the Pope to allow Anglicans to be reconciled to Rome while retaining elements of their liturgical tradition deemed compatible with the Catholic faith, comes at the same time as the Spectator’s debate on whether England should become Catholic again and the present government’s curious projected rehabilitation of the status of Catholics with regard to the line of succession, conducted in the name, supposedly, of protecting their human rights.
I have had mixed feelings about Anglicanorum coetibus from the beginning. It is the first time that the Catholic Church has officially sanctioned a Reformed liturgical text, unless, that is, you count the Novus ordo of 1969, which was largely written by Protestants, as, effectively, a Protestant liturgy.
Had such a provision been made a hundred or even fifty years ago, its impact would have been quite different. Priestesses and supposedly immoral clergy, rather than the validity of orders and the exact nature, purpose and form of celebration of the sacraments, have been the factors that brought it forth: that, too, I still find somewhat absurd.
But my purpose, here, is not to muse about Anglicanorum coetibus, but rather to consider the question put to participants in the Spectator debate: should England become Catholic again?
There was until very recently, of course, a very good case to be made that England had never ceased to be Catholic. The Elizabethan religious settlement was sufficiently ambiguous to allow for this interpretation from the beginning. Its successors changed nothing about this. The Church of England’s decision to ordain women unilaterally effectively scuppered this claim, because in so doing it tipped the balance of probability decisively in favour of the invalidity of its orders and, consequently, of its Protestantism.
The point at issue, however, is hardly a theological one, indeed, not at all. It touches on the identity of Britain. From that perspective, one’s point of view has to be different. It’s a fact, for instance, that countries like Spain, Italy or Portugal are not Protestant, for exactly the same reason that Sweden, Denmark or Russia are not Catholic. The onward march of secularisation, a reality from which no part of Christendom, thus far, has escaped and which if anything is still gathering steam, has changed nothing about this: in all the above countries, people without strongly-held religious convictions continue to include religion as a factor determining their identity. A declining, but still significant number still choose to have their children christened for that very reason.
What about England, though? Is it really Protestant? I think the answer must be yes, regardless of the actual numbers of people attending the Established Church’s services rather than Roman Catholic ones.
Why? Well, simply put, because regardless of doctrinal issues, the fact is that England chose to go her own way religiously in 1533, then again in 1559, and the Roman Catholic Church that it broke away from has not stood still since, whether doctrinally or culturally. A number of traits that have featured prominently in post-Reformation England’s identity actually had roots in pre-Reformation traditions. Anti-papalism, in particular, did not begin with Henry VIII and was not specific to England: until the early nineteenth century, France was the theatre of a very similar movement, Gallicanism. The ultramontane faction eventually won in France, whereas in England the ‘Glorious’ Revolution of 1688, conducted ‘for the Protestant religion and the liberty of England’, ensured that’s England’s Establishment, for want of a narrower word, remained distinctly Protestant until the present reign.
Whether you like it or not England’s identity prior to 1707, and that of all the Nations subsequently subsumed into the Kingdom in its various guises since, was shaped by the fires of Smithfield, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the failure of the Gunpowder Plot and the battle of the Boyne. Loyalty to the Sovereign and pride in the existence of an Established Church, even if one can harbour the gravest doubts about that Church’s ancient and more recent doctrinal errancies, is what is ultimately at stake here.
At her Coronation, HM The Queen took the following oath:
It would be fanciful to believe that at the next Coronation, this oath, which had essentially remained unchanged since it was established by statute and taken by William and Mary, will be administered in anything like the same form. Yet that it most probably will not will effectively signify that Britain has ceased to be a Protestant country. Not so much because the Established Church has pretty well imploded, for that is a dogmatic issue, and dogma has never been a very important thing in English eyes. Rather, because the Protestant settlement resulting from the Glorious Revolution and the Act of Settlement no longer appears to command the slightest respect either from HM Government or from the Tory (at the time of writing) Opposition, one can conclude that it will be consigned to the dustbin of History at some point between now and the next Proclamation. The current obstacles to their plan, namely that the present Sovereign takes her duties as Defender of the Faith seriously and that unanimity will be required among the remaining Commonwealth Realms before the Act of Settlement can be amended, may delay that destruction. They cannot unfortunately stand in its way for ever.
And whether you be Protestant or Catholic, from a dogmatic point of view, is decidedly not the point at issue: we can all agree that when England ceases to be a Protestant country, a not insignificant part of her glory, earned in the battle-field and in defence of liberty far more than in the pulpit, will have been extinguished for ever.